If one follows The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal stories about amazing auction results and over-the-top prices commanded by artists who have just barely earned their Master of Fine Art degrees, it is easy to believe that everyone, everywhere is buying very expensive and “important” art by “significant” dead, established, and emerging artists.
However, the truth is that the art market is varied and multi-faceted and, in some ways, a mysterious place—and it is not a place that is reserved only for the rich and famous.
Individuals who choose to spend their money on a work of art, or several artworks, do so for a number of reasons. The ones who make the news are part of a rarefied group of notable “collectors”—those who make purchases based on the focus of a particular collection and with the hope that the newest addition to said collection will grow significantly in value. These headline-grabbing buys from famed auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York—for instance, Jackson Pollock, Number 19, 1948, which sold at Christie’s evening auction last May for a hammer price of $52 million (total price including Christie’s premiums brought that number to $58 million, plus)—are often very costly because, in reality, if you want to own art that is likely to grow in value, you must make a substantial investment at the time of purchase.
More recent big auction news includes the sale of Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold at Christie’s for $58.4 million in November, 2013. In fact, the month of November saw more than $1.1 billion spent on twentieth century art, through New York’s two leading auction houses, setting new records. The most expensive auctioned artwork of all, Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, was sold to an anonymous buyer for $142.4 million following a seven-way bidding war. In December, Norman Rockwell’s Saying Grace set the record for one of the most expensive American paintings ever sold at auction, fetching $46 million at Sotheby’s New York. The following day at Christie’s, an anonymous buyer set a different record for the purchase of Edward Hopper’s Depression-era work, East Wind Over Weehawken, which sold for $40.5 million.
For those with a lot of money, art seems to be considered a safer place to spend it than the financial system. This market is fueled by buyers of all age groups and from different countries, with the greatest infusion of capital coming from what publisher of Art Ltd Magazine, Peter Fehler, calls the “BRIC” countries: Brazil, Russia, India, and China—and many of these buyers are in their late thirties and early forties. New York gallery owner and art dealer Hollis Taggart has said that he has seen this global demographic grow markedly in only the last three years. The art market has also drawn wealthy buyers from emerging markets in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. At its record-breaking November sale, Christie’s registered bidders from 42 countries. The art market has indeed globalized. When asked if her clientele is scattered around the globe, Gretchen Berggruen, of San Francisco’s Berggruen Gallery, responded with an exuberant “Yes!”
But being a collector is not exclusive to buyers with big budgets. Many enthusiasts have turned their search for art into a passion and a pastime.
The quest can be all consuming and a very important part of their lives. The joy of finding an aesthetically enticing and mind-expanding work created by a talented artist is a thrill that only an original art purchase can provide—at any price level.
Top San Francisco consultant Tom O’Connor has a client base that has come from both the world of technology and the world of finance. Most are new homeowners who have wall space to fill and, thus, plenty of room for collecting. This group seems to be quite thoughtful in its choices and somewhat conservative in its decisions, based on what a client enjoys owning and viewing in his or her daily life. For the most part, this type of buyer purchases what he likes and what he feels an emotional connection to; names and dollar amounts are not the driving forces behind the art selections.
These are the art buyers who frequent art galleries that feature mid-career artists whose works sell for $10,000 and upward, or the younger, emerging artists whose prices start well below that amount, and whose works can be found on one of the many, easily accessed art-purchasing websites.
Many art professionals had hoped that the all-pervasive technology sector living and working south of San Francisco would provide a huge boon for the local art community. It appears that this is not the case. Beyond a few well-known moguls (think Google, Oracle, or more specifically, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and Marc Andreessen who co-founded Netscape), most of that area’s buying is geared in other directions. As high-profile Los Angeles/New York City art dealer Larry Gagosian sees it, “Art comes between buying the Ferrari and sending the kids off to college.”
In terms of big-ticket national or international sales, one highly regarded local specialist in the contemporary art field, who prefers to remain unnamed, says, “Hollywood still generates the excitement at auction while Silicon Valley’s impact is almost unnoticeable.”
Still, it is apparent that couples and singles who are emerging financially realize that buying art from artists who are also emerging brings a certain amount of status and position—with the ultimate reward of possibly seeing the artist they select today become tomorrow’s star—and patting themselves on the back when it happens.
Linda Zweig is an art consultant serving private and corporate clients. She has also worked with several auction houses, including Christie’s, New York, and Bonhams & Butterfields, San Francisco.